This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Even if God did exist, we have no way of telling what he wants. Therefore, “what God wants” is a terrible basis for making law and public policy.
How do we convince religious believers to accept same-sex marriage?
The opposition to LGBT rights in general, and to same-sex marriage in particular, overwhelmingly comes from conservative religion, founded in the religious belief that gay sex makes baby Jesus cry. So if same-sex marriage proponents want to persuade religious believers to support same-sex marriage… how can we do that? Should we keep our argument entirely secular, and stay away from the whole question of religius belief? Or should we try to persuade them that God is on our side?
Lots of people make the second argument. Bishop Gene Robinson is one of them. And Bishop Robinson is a man to be taken seriously. The first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Bishop Robinson has been active in progressive political activism for many years: he is a fellow at the Center for American Progress, is co-author of three AIDS education curricula for youth and adults, has done AIDS work in the United States and in Africa, and famously delivered the invocation at President Obama’s opening inaugural ceremonies in 2009. He’s recently written a book, published by Knopf and widely reviewed and well-received: God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. Aimed at religious believers who oppose same-sex marriage or are on the fence about it, the book makes a Christian case for same-sex marriage: “a commonsense, reasoned, religious argument [emphasis in the book description], made by someone who holds the religious text of the Bible to be holy and sacred and the ensuing two millennia of church history to be relevant to the discussion.”
And I think this is a terrible, terrible idea.
I am an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage. What with being married to a woman and all. I agree fervently that same-sex marriage deserves fully equal legal and social recognition with opposite-sex marriage, and I am very glad to see Bishop Robinson, and anyone else, advocating for it in the public arena.
But the argument he makes in his new book, God Believes in Love, disturbs me greatly. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that God, or any sort of religious or spiritual belief, should have anything to do with the question of same-sex marriage. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that any decision about politics, law, public policy, or morality should ever be based on what’s supposedly going on in God’s head. I agree completely with Bishop Robinson’s conclusion about same-sex marriage — but I am passionately opposed to the method by which he’s reached it, and the arguments he’s making to advance it.
I should say right now: I’m an atheist. But before anyone dismisses my argument on that basis, let me be very clear: My objections are relevant to everyone. The things that trouble me about religion being injected into public debate… they should trouble everyone. Yes, my objections are strongly informed by my atheism. But my problem is not, “God doesn’t exist, therefore ‘what God wants’ is a ridiculous thing to worry about.”
My problem is this: When we base our political/ legal/ moral decisions on what we think God wants, we have no way of knowing if we’re right.
When we base our decisions on what we think God wants, we have no basis for resolving our differences. Religion is based on faith — and faith, by definition, is uniquely resistant to evidence. Even at its best, faith ultimately comes down to, “I feel it in my heart.” And if someone else feels something entirely different in their heart about God’s intentions, we have no means of persuading them that they’re mistaken. For that matter, we have no means of being persuaded ourselves if we’re mistaken. When we base our decisions on what we think God wants, it’s ultimately no different from basing our decisions on what we want… reinforced and amplified by the conviction that our wishes dovetail with God’s, and made more stubbornly resistant to change by the fundamental irrationality of religious faith.
Now, that’s okay when we’re just making decisions about our own lives. As long as it doesn’t significantly affect others, our private decisions can be impulsive, irrational, based entirely on our own intuitions and desires, and as intractable as we like. But decisions about politics and the law affect people other than ourselves. So they need to be based on sound reasoning, solid compassion, and the best possible evidence about what helps and hurts people… not on people’s inevitably biased speculations about what they think God wants.
Let’s look at Bishop Robinson’s religious arguments for same-sex marriage. If anyone on Earth was going to make a good religious case for same-sex marriage, it’d be Bishop Robinson. But his arguments boil down to this: “Here’s the correct interpretation of the Bible. Interpretations of the Bible that oppose homosexuality are wrong: they misunderstand Scripture and God’s will. When you interpret the Bible correctly, you’ll see that of course I’m right.”
We have two problems here. First, we have the whole “correct interpretation of the Bible” thing. As I’m sure Bishop Robinson is aware, interpretations of the Bible vary wildly. Why should we agree with him that his interpretation is the right one? Yes, he’s no doubt a Biblical scholar, and has studied the history and social context of the Bible at some length. But other Biblical scholars disagree with him. And they can quote chapter and verse, too, and cite historical context for their claims. In fact, throughout history, Biblical scholars have used their scholarship to defend: slavery, the oppression of women, the rejection of medical care, the systematic subjugation of Jews, the Inquisition, the Crusades… do I need to go on?
In his very own book, Bishop Robinson acknowledges the intense horrors promoted by the Bible, and the intense horrors that have been committed in its name. In his own book, he acknowledges that interpretations of the Bible need to be influenced by the best evidence that’s currently available, and by the best current morality we can muster. So how does he know that his interpretation is the right one? If he’s basing his argument on faith, then how is anyone else supposed to know which of the thousands of wildly-varying faiths to trust in? And if he’s basing his argument on evidence and reason and basic human compassion… then what do we need the Bible for?
Which leads me to a much more fundamental problem: When it comes to questions of politics and law, why should we even pay attention to the Bible in the first place?
Can Bishop Robinson (or anyone else, for that matter) make a good case for why the Christian Bible — as opposed to the Koran, the Torah, the Bhagavad-Gita, Drawing Down the Moon, The Book of the SubGenius, The Satanic Bible, or The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — is the best representation of God’s will?
Yes, Bishop Robinson’s Christian Bible says that “where love is, there is God also.” It also says that people should leave their families to follow Christ. It says that divorce is prohibited. It says that even thinking about something bad is just as bad as doing it. It says that listening to Jesus is more important than being helpful to the people around you. It says that anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus’ teachings is doomed to be tortured in hell for all eternity. It says that I, personally, have committed the one sin that is absolutely unforgiveable: not rape, not torture, not genocide, but denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. And that’s not the nasty stuff from the Old Testament. Those are Jesus’ own words from the Gospels. (Or rather, since I have significant doubts about whether the historical Jesus even existed: Those are the words of the Jesus character in the New Testament myth.) As I’m sure Bishop Robinson is aware, the Bible is shot through with historical inaccuracies, scientific inaccuracies, internal inconsistencies, outrageous absurdities, and moral atrocities. Why should anyone think that, when we’re deciding important matters of public policy that affect millions of people, we should pay special attention to this particular book? Or any attention at all?
The reasons outlined in Bishop Robinson’s book for why he’s a Christian are that: (a) he was raised a Christian, (b) he had good experiences with his religious upbringing, and (c) at a young age he experienced an altered state of consciousness in which he thought he perceived the presence of Jesus. With all due respect… really? That’s his argument? On that basis, he’s basing not only his personal life and private decisions, but his public arguments for how everyone else should vote and pass laws and live their lives? I’m sorry to be snarky, but: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. And neither is a vague ecstatic feeling of the presence of God on the part of an impressionable young man.
I suspect that even Bishop Robinson realizes this. The bulk of his book makes an entirely secular case for same-sex marriage: out of its eleven chapters, only three (including one really short one) focus on the question of what God does or doesn’t think, and in the rest of the book, religion rarely even comes into play. And his secular arguments for same-sex marriage are generally quite strong: clear, straightforward, well-reasoned, down-to-earth, and grounded in reality and basic human ethics. I don’t agree with all of them — I don’t love his privileging of marriage and other normative relationship models, to the point of throwing less-conventional sexual and romantic relationships under the bus — but on the whole, his book makes good, clear secular arguments for same-sex marriage.
But his religious case for same-sex marriage is a hot mess. It’s contorted, confusing, self-contradictory, poorly reasoned, willfully blind, and blatantly self-serving. He argues that a Christian view of marriage (or indeed anything) has to prioritize Scripture over all other concerns, that “first, and always first, is the Scripture itself”… and then argues that the Scriptural views of marriage are inconsistent and often reprehensible, and don’t have to be followed. Shouldn’t be followed. He repeatedly points out the dangers of interpreting Scripture based on one’s own biases and desires… and then proceeds to do exactly that. At length. Even I think he’s conveniently cherry-picking the bits that serve the conclusion he wants to come to. And I’m on his side.
So okay. Maybe my argument really is, “God doesn’t exist, therefore ‘what God wants’ is a ridiculous thing to worry about.” But… no. That’s not it. My argument is this: “There’s no good reason to think that God exists, and even if he did we have no way of telling what he wants or of settling disagreement about his opinions. Therefore, ‘what God wants’ is a terrible basis for making law and public policy.”
Now, some will argue that, as a pure matter of Machiavellian strategy, we should make a case for same-sex marriage that religious believers can accept. Some will argue that, as a pure matter of strategy, “God doesn’t hate gay people, God loves gay people,” is an easier sell than, “Who cares what God thinks? You have no way of knowing what God thinks, so keep your arguments focused on the reality we actually know exists.” Some will argue that most people aren’t atheists or agnostics, or even believers who understand that their beliefs are pretty uncertain… so if we want to shift public opinion towards acceptance of same-sex marriage, we need to convince believers that God is on board.
But when we make a religious case for same-sex marriage — heck, when we make a religious case for any matter of public policy — we’re conceding that public policy should be based on religion. And that means we’re conceding the idea that policy and law should be decided, not on the basis of solid evidence and sound reasoning and basic human compassion, but on personal faith. We’re conceding that if the Bible really does condemn homosexuality, then homosexuality must be bad. And we’re conceding that “I have no good reason to think this, I just do” is an acceptable argument in political discourse.
I am not willing to concede that. The presence of religion in public debate is harmful to the point of being toxic. It shifts the terms of the conversation: away from, “What is the most just, what does the most good, what alleviates the most harm, what makes society run the most smoothly”… and towards, “What is my personal interpretation of an inconsistent, wildly inaccurate, frequently barbaric holy text largely written in the Iron Age?”
And I think even Bishop Robinson knows this. In his very own book, he argues that “religious opposition to same-gender marriage is an example of violation of separation of Church and State.” He argues that religious bodies should not attempt to impose their will on the civil state, or meddle in its rightful business. So why is he trying to do exactly that?
Why is it not okay for homophobic fundamentalists to insert their personal religious views into public discourse… but it’s okay for the nice gay bishop?
It’s not like this argument is even necessary. History shows that, when faced with new evidence or better logic or a more compelling moral case, societies do eventually let go of crummy ideas promoted by their religions. Societies have held terrible beliefs, about slavery and science and gender and sex and a thousand other things, fiercely and stubbornly defended by religious institutions… and we’ve let go of them. It often takes time, but it does happen. And yes, people do typically make these advances by contorting their religious beliefs to fit the new evidence/ logic/ morality… not by letting go of their religion entirely. (Although that’s starting to change.) But it’s the secular case, the evidence or the logic or the glaring moral horrors, that these new beliefs shape themselves around. It’s the secular case that drives the change. So the secular case is the one we need to be making.
The minute we start making religious arguments for same-sex marriage — or for anything, for that matter — the debate turns into a series of arguments from authority, an endless and fundamentally unresolvable sequence of “This is what God thinks!” “No, this is what God thinks!” Or, more accurately: “This is what my preacher says God thinks!” “Well, this is what my preacher says God thinks!” And that has nowhere to go but around in circles forever.
So even when we’re trying to persuade religious believers, our arguments need to be secular. They need to be based in good evidence, sound reasoning, and basic human compassion. And they need to leave religion out of it. Period.